A brilliant new musical set in racially charged America’s deep south in the ‘60s has just come to town and you only have a few days to see it. An 11-strong cast and “hidden” orchestra (they are behind a black floor to ceiling curtain) tell the story of a young woman who sets out on a journey to try to become beautiful. Her name is Violet. With her mother having passed away, she was raised by her father on a farm.
An accident with an axe blade at a tender age left her with ugly facial scars that often results in those who meet her for the first time resiling in horror. A “believer”, Violet has saved money for a cross-country trip to Tulsa, Oklahoma, from where a charismatic evangelist she has never met preaches and can supposedly heal the afflicted. Her desperate mission is to get him to “cure” her of her physical “blight”, in other words to make her scars disappear. So on September 4th, 1964 she steps aboard a Greyhound bus in Spruce Pine, North Carolina and along the way encounters a number of fellow travellers, including a pair of soldiers – Flick, who is black and Monty, white. The three of them grow from the experience.
So, with show-stopping anthems ranging from American roots to folk, soul and gospel, Violet the musical follows a strong willed woman who, on her quest for divine intervention, finds a different kind of salvation. With universal themes of image, love, family, justice, prejudice, belonging and fitting in the narrative speaks volumes. It is told through two concurrent threads – one, Violet as a child and her interactions with her father and the other, Violet the young adult, whip smart but scarred both mentally and physically who has vivid dreams.
Among the many knockout performances are those of the two leads, who not only have enviable stage presence, but superb voices. Sam Dodemaide (Anything Goes) is the older Violet and Barry Conrad (a finalist on The X-Factor) plays Flick. Jordan Pollard (Anything Goes) is bold and brassy as the preacher (he also doubles as one of the bus drivers), while Cherine Peck (The Lion King) works up a lather as the gospel singer supporting the preacher. Deidre Rubenstein (North by Northwest) is a hoot as a lady of the night. Damien Bermingham (Priscilla Queen of the Desert – The Musical) is memorable as the father who caused her daughter’s gross disfigurement but who truly loves her. Steve Danielson (Wicked) is the shallow, womanising, aspiring Green Beret and Luisa Scrofani leaves a lasting imprint as the younger, impressionable Violet.
The superb musical score is by Jeanine Tesori and libretto by Brian Crawley, based upon the short story The Ugliest Pilgrim by Doris Betts. As a matter of interest, The Ugliest Pilgrim was made into a short film, named Violet, which won an Academy Award in 1981. Violet premiered off Broadway in March 2007 before opening on Broadway in March 2014. It was awarded Best Production, Best Direction and Best Musical Direction at the Sydney Theatre Awards.
With a simple but not easily forgotten set, which uses a large painting of a road to nowhere as the backdrop, Violet is superb, engaging entertainment – poignant, at times humorous and most certainly affecting. Direction is from Mitchell Butel (who holds three Helpmann Awards and two Green Room Awards for his work as an actor) and musical direction from Martine Wengrow (CATS). This is ultimately an uplifting musical that taps into our collective human psyche that should not be missed. In fact, it is so good I would love to see it again.
Violet, which runs for an hour and 45 minutes without interval, is playing at Chapel off Chapel in Prahran until 20th March.
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television